Sing for Your Supper

Stage Left Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Established in 1935 as part of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theatre Project provided employment to the writers, actors, composers, costumers, set designers, and directors who’d been thrown out of work by the Depression, subsidizing “free, adult, uncensored” theatrical productions. These were located across the country, both in cities known for their theater like New York and in places where theater was much less readily available like Roanoke Island, North Carolina, where Paul Green’s FTP-funded historical drama The Lost Colony is still performed every summer in a theater built by the WPA.

Thousands of people enjoyed these shows. And under the harshest of economic conditions, the FTP managed to launch some of the brightest lights of the years preceding and following World War II, including Orson Welles, John Houseman, Arthur Miller, and Marc Blitzstein. But the FTP had its detractors, most notably the conservative congressmen who opposed the WPA itself as the sign of an intrusive federal government and a harbinger of socialism. It was their opposition, led by Congressman Martin Dies, that killed the FTP on June 30, 1939.

Lawrence Arancio’s two-hour two-act play with music chronicles the rise and fall of the FTP as seen through the eyes of its founder, Hallie Flanagan. And as a documentary history, including a number of songs from shows of the 30s, Arancio’s play does a tolerably good job of informing us of the FTP’s intent. Flanagan tells us with pride of the many people who’d never seen theater before who attended FTP productions. And Arancio’s frequent quotations from such dramas as Power and The Cradle Will Rock and from a Living Newspaper give us a feeling, however slight and fleeting, for the FTP’s more didactic works.

But even on its own terms, the play is lacking. Arancio’s portrait of Flanagan is so reverential–and cold–that we never see much of the woman behind the headlines. Whenever Flanagan speaks, she sounds like a policy paper. This bureaucratic distance is made all the greater by Jennifer Bradley’s ice-queen performance–even Flanagan’s conversations with her supportive long-suffering husband sound like notes from the Congressional Record. In fact, Drew Martin’s bargain-basement Stage Left production features a cast that, with one exception, ranges from pretty good to merely adequate, even though the show requires virtuoso performers. Every actor–except those playing Flanagan and Dies–depicts four or five characters over the course of the show, a feat only a few of them handle with the necessary power and grace.

Just below the surface of Arancio’s craftsmanlike (if ill-served) history, however, lies another play, one concerned with the current debates about the NEA and the underhanded tactics Senator Jesse Helms has used to deliver his would-be deathblows to the agency. Though Arancio never mentions Helms by name (he’s been less silent in newspaper interviews), you can see the senator’s bald pate, bushy eyebrows, and bullying manner in Larry Dahlke, who’s terrific as Congressman Dies. Likewise, you’d have to be blind not to see the parallels between Dies’s red-baiting of the FTP–Dies even saw commie subversion in the writings of Jefferson and Lincoln–and Helms’s own pronouncements that Mapplethorpe’s art is indecent and that Serrano’s art is sacrilegious.

Arancio makes it clear that Dies’s attacks are based on his own literal and figurative ignorance of theater and art: he and his fellow congressmen hadn’t attended any FTP productions when they ended the program. Like Senator Helms, Dies yearns for art without meaning, art without any political, sexual, or emotional message–art that actually resists political, sexual, and emotional meaning. But where Dies condemns Power as a subversive call for an uprising against the utilities, Arancio’s quotations from the play reveal a work that both encourages and discourages consumer participation in establishing electrical rates, as a citizen learns how to appeal high rates yet finally loses the battle in court.

Of course Dies misses the ambiguity in Power because he doesn’t want to be confused by the facts, a point Arancio makes perfectly clear in a couple of delicious selections from the anti-FTP hearings. Dies proves again and again that he doesn’t really care about Flanagan’s little program and whether or not it created a tiny bloom of vital American theater. He knows nothing about art, he only knows what he doesn’t like.

During the tense, exceptionally well written and performed climax of the play, Arancio (and Martin and company) touches on a fact deeper than the apparent parallels between Dies and Helms and between the FTP and the NEA. For a brief time, this production reveals in Dies’s hysterical ravings about communists and theater our nation’s barely hidden distrust of art and intellectuals, a distrust that goes back at least as far as the Puritans. After all, they closed the theaters when they first came to power in England and brought their pious intolerance, instinctive anti-intellectualism, and knee-jerk distrust of art with them when they fled to this country before and after Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector. I only wish Arancio and Stage Left had found a way to make the whole production sing as strongly–and clearly–as it does in its final glorious half hour.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sing For Your Supper theater still/ uncredited.